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Black Athletes Have Long Seen Boston as Racist

ESPN's J.A. Adande wrote eloquently a few weeks ago about the irony of seeing the Celtics as a white team. (Interesting set of comments about that article.) Past and present, you can make a case that the Celtics have been as pro-black as any team.

Today, John Gonzalez of Boston magazine investigates the notion that Boston is racist. Credit him with taking a very sober and reasoned approach, which, probably appropriately, doesn't really reach a conclusion about whether or not Boston is particularly racist. What he found was a lot of black athletes willing to confirm that the city has long had that reputation.

He also found players like Al Jefferson who wonder what all the fuss is about.

The truth, I suspect, is not definitive. There's no such thing as a bad city. We're talking about the actions of thousands if not millions of sports fans. They are not organized. Some of them are racists, like in every city. Bad things have happened in the past. Do all those things happen disproportionately in that one place? Tough to say. But all sides should be heard with an open mind, and Gonzalez sure did the requisite listening.

But more than anything, Gonzalez found a disappointing willingness among Bostonians to pipe up. His story ends like this:

While reporting this story, I reached out to the Celtics, Red Sox, and Patriots, asking for interviews with current players, coaches, and front office members. The Celtics gave me the runaround before ultimately passing. The Red Sox and Patriots failed to do even that much; they simply didn't acknowledge the requests. An attempt to speak with Mayor Tom Menino, who made improved race relations a key issue during the Boston Miracle, was met with similar stonewalling. Countless e-mails and phone calls to the mayor's public relations office yielded platitudes from his flacks, but no interview.

The city's reputation for racism endures because we don't want to talk about it, because the press seems more interested in reporting on the controversy than in initiating a useful dialogue, because athletes are more careful today than they've ever been. There aren't many Bill Russells anymore-someone who speaks his mind because his conscience demands it. Russell once told me he thought of himself as a man first and a basketball player second. These days, with millions riding on endorsement contracts and a capricious media to navigate, candor is seen as bad business. In a way, that's understandable, but it would be a powerful thing to hear from more of today's athletes. Because what Russell realized that so many current players still don't is this: The best way to move forward is often to deal with the past.

To that end, the city itself could probably learn something from the experiences of Guy Stuart, the Kennedy School lecturer. Before he came to Boston, Stuart, who is white, spent a decade working in black communities in Chicago. It was there that he learned a useful lesson: If you want to improve race relations, "don't go around simply saying you're not racist."

UPDATE: More insight on the same topic from Vincent Thomas of SLAM. He concludes that, as a black man, he now has no trouble rooting for the Celtics, but he doesn't wonder where the hesitation comes from:

You gotta admit, those Celtics squads -- especially from the mid to late 80s -- were downright NBA aberrations. It almost looked weird. You would be hard-pressed to find a playoff squad that rotated in three white players for more than 15 minutes a night by that time. The Celtics, on the other hand, would feature five, sometimes six white players in a nine-man rotation. And they were so good as a team and so tough to beat that it irritated the folks in black neighborhoods. They had made the NBA "theirs" and here comes a team full of Birds, Mchales, Waltons, Ainges, Jerry Sichtings and Scott Wedmans. There was nothing The Chief or freckle-face DJ could do to put lipstick on that pig, no lily to gild right there. Some of the media coverage played into racial stereotypes. Boston was portrayed as smart, tough, and industrious. To let writers and announcers tell it, the Celtics used skill, resource, fortitude, guile and toughness to outwit and outplay the predominantly black squads that relied solely on athletic gifts. (Interestingly, though, this enterprising squad's coach, KC Jones, a black man, never hoisted the Red Auerbach Trophy as coach of the year.) Some of these perceived slights or biases were just that -- perceived, drummed-up -- umbrage. Still, it resulted in deep, pervasive, long-lasting backlash within the black community.